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150thI  had the honor to contribute an essay to a Festschrift for the 150th anniversary of the opening of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that encircles the Inner City: Vienna’s Champs-Élysées.

Recently, I read this essay at a Vienna Salon organized by the Vienna Tourist Board at San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton. I include the essay below for those interested.

My connection to Vienna has always been a visceral one: I came of age in that city; it is my second home. Thus, my addition to the essays from thirteen writers around the world is much more of a personal anecdote than a historical reflection.

1865–

It was the time of the big change in Vienna. The fortress mentality, bred into the populace for centuries as the outpost against eastern invasion, was being traded in for openness and inclusion. Vienna was no longer a bastion but a window on the world. By imperial decree, the city’s medieval walls had been razed, the Glacis, a no-man’s land formerly separating the city and its suburbs, was being developed in one of the biggest, most grandiose real estate development schemes the world had yet witnessed. Emperor Franz Joseph officially opened the boulevard on May 1 of that

The Parliament under construction

The Parliament under construction

year.

Meanwhile, my forefathers were battling seasickness and fleas as they voyaged across the Atlantic from Wales and Norway, making their way to the Midwest, where they settled for several generations. And then my immediate family later finished the journey, trekking all the way to the limits of the continental U.S. to a tiny beach town in Oregon.

I was raised in that sleepy hamlet. Its population of a few thousand from September to the end of May doubled during the summer months with Portland tourists flocking to the beach.

Just as the town’s population was circumscribed by the seasons, so was its length and breadth delimited by a headland to the south, the peaks of the Coast Range to the east, and the mouth of the mellifluously named Necanicum River to the north. The two miles between the southern headland and the river mouth were connected by a concrete walkway called the Prom. It fronted the town: ocean to the west and rows of delightfully lumbering old beach houses to the east.

The Prom

The Prom

The Prom was my introduction to traffic articulation in its most modest and fundamental form. I loved that Prom. As a youngster I rode my bike along it to golf courses where I caddied or mowed greens; I made up tales about the musty Victorian houses along its eastern edge–my first efforts at fiction.

The Prom also formed the top of a ‘T’ with the town’s other main street, Broadway, a Coney Island paradise of bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, miniature golf, cotton candy stands, and arcades full of zinging and dinging pinball machines where our summer overflow crowds of tourists could be found thronging.

Those carnival delights and the beach houses along the Prom delineated my architectural world.

Going away to college did little to broaden my perspectives: though large, my university and the town it overshadowed only multiplied in quantity, not quality, the grid of streets I had grown up on.

And then I was fortunate enough to go to Vienna my junior year.

It changed my life: it ruined me for the little Oregon town in which I had quite happily grown up, never understanding my older sisters’ carping complaints of how dead the place was.

I resisted her at first. Vienna seemed so old, so monumental, so Viennese.

But slowly on walking expeditions around the Ringstrasse, a boulevard of

The Court Opera

The Court Opera

3.5 miles circumference and broader even than the Necanicum of my youth, I came to feel a curious rhythm, a tingling sense of place, a kinship and desire for belonging. Vienna, My first urban experience, became my template for what a city should be.

This came about in stages. The Volksgarten was my first revelation, with its bowed roses, tied down and mulched in chilly late autumn against winter freeze, the garden’s fountains boarded in cone-shaped hats. Yet the regal Dackels still pranced about its grounds in their knitted mantels as if it were eternal summer.

Buildings came next. The twin museums with their prizes inside–the Brueghels, one-third of the painter’s surviving works; the Venus of Willendorf, at 20,000 years the oldest representation of a human figure; the butterfly collection! And the Opera with its tragic story of a misspoken comment by Franz Joseph resulting in the suicide of one of its architects.

These buildings, I discovered, had stories, just like the Prom houses I pedaled past as a boy. And what stories they were. Even buildings no longer standing had tales to tell, such as the Ring Theater on the Schottenring where fire broke out during a performance in 1881, killing almost four hundred. Franz Joseph ordered an apartment house, the Sühnhaus or ‘house of atonement ‘, built on the site of that theater, but it proved an eternally unlucky address. Freud lived there but moved out after one of his patients jumped to her death in the building’s stairwell. The Sünhaus did not live much longer, either, destroyed in World War II. There was a silver lining, however: the invention of the fire curtain came about as a result of that 1881 disaster.

Along the Ringstrasse

Along the Ringstrasse

With the attention of an archivist, I painstakingly learned such stories for each section of this boulevard, the Ringstrasse. And these stories ultimately led me to the tail end of the Ringstrasse era, to the amazing renaissance of Vienna 1900. That culture and epoch created the modern sensibility through the works of such seminal artists, writers, and thinkers as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among so many others. Yet Vienna 1900, and the world it engendered, was also a breeding ground for such future tyrants as Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler, all of whom also spent time in the city.

Just as I learned this peculiar double-sided nature of Vienna history, I also began to see the Ring itself in a new and more discerning light, its magnificent buildings often having more symbolic import than architectural functionality. The court theater, Burgtheater, was lyre-shaped as a tip of the hat to the origins of Greek drama, but its acoustics were so execrable that its auditorium had to be redesigned. The neo-Gothic Rathaus allowed scant light in for the functionaries of city hall. The magnificent Court Opera cost six million gulden to build at a time when thousands were homeless, sleeping in warming rooms, sewers, and park benches.

Facts of history. But still the Ringstrasse beckoned me.

Later, living and working in Vienna long after my student days, those

The Ring today

The Ring today

houses on the Ring and street junctions with the Ring took on personal connections. In the 1970s I worked in one of these elegant Ringstrasse houses, the former Grand Hotel on the Kärtner Ring adapted as the first home of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When it opened its doors in 1870, that hotel had 300 rooms, 200 bathrooms, and was equipped with a telegraph office and steam-powered elevators. Thus, a century later, most of the offices of the IAEA were still neatly appointed with Belle Époque bathrooms. Decades after I worked there, the Grand once again opened as a 5-star luxury hotel. Points of the compass along that Ring also became meeting places: Schottentor, Karlsplatz, Schwarzenbergerplatz. Each had is personal history now for me beyond historical ones: a chance meeting here, a sad farewell there.

Burgtheater on the Ring

Burgtheater on the Ring

And later still, the Ring–its physical self as well as the world and era it represents–would become a presence in both my nonfiction and fiction. I sent tourists on walking tours along its breadth. And now, residing thousands of miles away from Vienna, I relive my own years there by setting my fictional protagonist off on a stroll along the Ring from the Hotel Imperial to the Kunsthistorisches Museum or on a wild nighttime fiaker ride over the boulevard’s uneven cobbles.

Thus, the Ringstrasse strangely informs and encompasses my life–a circle not a line like the Prom of my youth. A continuity, not a simple destination. And I live with and enjoy its special irony: That walls once meant to keep out barbarians like me, demolished more than 150 years ago, were replaced with the Ringstrasse: an open, welcoming expanse beckoning me and a multitude of others to the city of dreams.

w552873My newest mystery/thriller comes out this April, the first of a new series set in Europe in the 1990s.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

Expat American journalist Sam Kramer is burned out: too many dead bodies, too many wars covered, too little meaning in it all. He’s got a dead-end job at the Daily European as the correspondent for Vienna, where nothing happens now that the Cold War is over. And that is exactly how Kramer likes it.

But his private neutral zone is shattered with news of the suicide of Reni Müller, a German left-wing firebrand and Kramer’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend. To his surprise, Kramer suddenly finds himself the executor of Reni’s literary estate—but the damning memoir named in her will is nowhere to be found. Tracking down the manuscript will lead Kramer to the unsettling truth of Reni’s death, drawing him back into the days of the Cold War and showing him the dark side of the woman he loved.

n437239If you have not yet had the chance to read my WWII thriller, today would be a good day to pick up an e-book version. My publishers, Mysterious Press/Open Road, are offering it–and a couple hundred other titles–at 80% off.

Click on it here

 

REVIEWS:
“The story is solid and suspenseful …but it’s the relationship between Morgan and Beck, two men who don’t like or trust one another, that makes the book such a rich, powerful read. Fans of WWII mystery fiction should consider this one mandatory reading.” David Pitt, Booklist

“Capt. Nathan Morgan, an NYPD homicide detective, and Chief Insp. Werner Beck, a former German Kripo investigator … make a promising sleuthing pair.”   Publishers Weekly

Included in Kirkus Review’s Last Chance: 10 Criminoous Yarns to Get You Through 2013″

Ruin Value remains a bold piece of writing and a very pleasing serial killer investigation and thriller. It’s well worth reading.” Thinking about Books

” I could almost taste the fear and dust and decay as I read it. … Definitely a case of right book at the right time!” Col’s Criminal Library

“Perfect for  readers of  historical crime fiction who like mysteries set in immediate postwar Europe and for readers who might be looking for a new crime writer who can whip up a good plot and keep it going consistently throughout the book… it’s rich in setting and the crime is well plotted.”      Crime Segments

“The unlikely duo of Morgan and Beck get the job done despite some friction in their teamwork. The writing is terrific and brings post-war Nuremberg vividly to life. The main characters are interesting and likeable, and the author does a very good job of working with the post-war setting instead of disguising modern characters and attitudes in 1945 attire.”    At the Scene of the Crime

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERASam Hawken has made the Texas borderlands his own unique home in a number of well received and hard-hiting crime novels. His first novel, the 2011 work, The Dead Women of Juarez, was published in the UK and used the real-life tragedy of female homicides in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez as the stepping-off point for a story of corruption, despair and redemption. It was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association for the John Creasy New Blood Dagger.

Tequila  Sunset followed in 2012, returning once again to Ciudad Juárez and its sister city, El Paso, Texas. This time Hawken drew upon the legacy of the infamous gang Barrio Azteca, at one time responsible for over 80% of the murders in Juárez, formerly the murder capital of the world. Once again, the Crime Writers Association recognized Hawken’s work, nominating the novel for the Gold Dagger (best crime novel of the year). Continue Reading »

german 2It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of the ‘war to end all wars’, and there have been a spate of books published this year looking at all aspects of World War One. I add a fictional element with The German Agent, a thriller set in Washington, DC, in 1917. Though the war had raged in Europe, the Middle East, and even parts of Africa for three years, the U.S. did not join in hostilities until 1917. The German Agent provides background to how we got involved in the international stage and is also a good, old-fashioned thriller in the style of Ken Follett.

The German Agent is available in England at the end of  September, and coming to the U.S. market in January, 2015. First a quick blurb, and please read on for a post on the inspiration for the book:

A ruthless German spy is torn between love and duty in this powerful espionage thriller

February, 1917. A lone German agent is dispatched to Washington to prevent the British delivering a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson – by any means possible. For this is the Zimmermann telegram: it contains a devastating piece of news which is sure to bring the USA into the war on the side of Britain and her allies.

Having fought in the trenches himself, Max Volkman knows that America’s involvement will only prolong the slaughter of innocents and is implacable in his determination to kill the British envoy carrying the telegram. But when his pursuit of the Englishman leads him to the home of American heiress Catherine Fitzgerald, wife to one of Washington’s most powerful politicians, he is presented with a terrible choice: loyalty to his comrades in the trenches or the loss of the one woman he has ever truly loved.

His decision will determine the outcome of the First World War.

Continue Reading »

barry-lancet-4-thumbBarry Lancet is the author of the Jim Brodie series of thrillers, featuring the Tokyo-based PI and antiques dealer. Lancet hit the ground running with the first novel in the series, Japantown, which was nominated for a Barry Award and selected as the Best Debut of the Year by Suspense Magazine in 2013. It was highly praised by critics. Booklist called it a “solid mystery with a memorable protagonist, the book captures our interest from the first page,” while the New York Times dubbed it a “sophisticated international thriller.” Japantown was also optioned for television by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros. Continue Reading »

indexGerman has a word for someone who exhibits this sort of behavior: Arschloch.

Mea culpa, I plead guilty to the symptoms of this malaise more than once in my life, but the one instance that sticks out most in memory is in the spring of 1969 on a trip to Berlin.

As in East Germany. Yes, that East Germany: Checkpoint Charlie, spies in trench coats and fedoras, the Wall, building facades pockmarked with artillery damage a quarter century after the end of World War II. After the Abu Ghraib photos and the NSA disclosures, the Cold War seems an almost romantic place. Nothing romantic about it, however, if you were on ground zero at the time.

Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War.

It was not a smart time for me to display my Arschloch side. Continue Reading »

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